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County taking new approach to committees

Monday, January 13, 2014 - Updated: 10:30 AM

By HEATHER NELLIS

heather.nellis@recordernews.com

FONDA -- The Montgomery County Legislature is considering a different committee system than the one exercised by the now-defunct board of supervisors.

At Tuesday's committee of the whole meeting, which calls for attendance of all nine legislators, Chairman Thomas Quackenbush floated the idea of holding all committee meetings in that manner.

It's out of recognition that a legislator's role is different than a supervisor's, and recognition of Executive Matt Ossenfort's authority, Quackenbush said.

"I don't want to create stumbling blocks for the executive," Quackenbush said.

Supervisors used to be the executive and legislative branch of government, but under the new form of government, the branches are split between Ossenfort and the legislature.

Under the old form of government, a variety of the 15 supervisors were assigned to seven committees that met monthly to hold discussions and debate resolutions. Each committee had jurisdiction over specific county operations.

Quackenbush issued such committee assignments and designated the chairs at the legislature's organizational meeting Jan. 1. But Quackenbush said it should be considered whether that's the most efficient system, because of the new division of power.

Instead of reporting to supervisors, employees now report to Ossenfort. He will have to present their resolutions to the legislature. Previously, the employees would present them to the supervisors; generally, it was the chairman of whichever committee had jurisdiction over their department.

While the legislators (and Ossenfort) agreed they can have discussions with employees so they are informed when voting on legislation, they also agreed they won't "micromanage" county operations.

"Now, issues are going to [Ossenfort] before they come to the board," Quackenbush said. "It isn't the committee chair diving into the department."

Those factors considered, Quackenbush said a committee of the whole system might be more beneficial, where all nine legislators attend every committee meeting.

"All that being said, and we know that Matt is the boss, why aren't we just having committee of the whole meetings like this?" Quackenbush asked. "Forget about this whole thing about committee chairs ..."

District 6 Legislator John Duchessi said the legislators need to understand the process by which the new form of government operates.

"This whole thought process, with respect to committees that have jurisdiction, is out of place," Duchessi said. "We have a county executive who's going to be running day-to-day operations, and we are legislators. Your suggestion we do away with the committee system and meet as a committee of the whole is an excellent one."

When Duchessi was mayor of Amsterdam, he said he issued biannual memos to aldermen reminding them they weren't to direct department heads, and conversely, staff weren't to take orders from them.

"We can be off to a good start if we recognize our roles," Duchessi said.

Quackenbush said based on his experience serving the board of supervisors, the committee system allowed departmental employees the option find a chairman who would sponsor a resolution.

"It was like shopping around until they found a home," Quackenbush said.

He explained most legislation could fall under the Finance Committee, and at least half under the Personnel Committee. So if a department head couldn't get the chairman of their respective committee to sponsor legislation, they had at least two others they could try.

Quackenbush pointed to the department heads in attendance at Tuesday's meeting, and they nodded their heads in agreement.

"But the whole idea is we're trying not to return to those days," Duchessi said.

District 9 Legislator Alex Kuchis agreed with the idea.

"I was hoping that whole idea of the throw-back to the board of supervisors, and having these individual committees, would go by the wayside," Kuchis said.

Because legislators are charged with controlling the county's purse strings, Quackenbush thinks the Finance Committee should be comprised of all nine legislators. Earlier in the meeting, legislators also talked about rotating the audit committee assignment so all legislators could learn it.

Quackenbush said the board of supervisors traditionally reviewed 400 resolutions annually.

"We're looking at far less, because our job is to legislate," he said.

Not all legislators are in favor of a system relying on committees of the whole, though.

That includes District 8 Legislator Joseph Isabel.

"Gee, Tom, I'm starting to think you're related to [Mayor] Ann Thane over in Amsterdam," Isabel said.

Isabel believes Thane "weakened" the committee structure during his tenure as 1st Ward alderman.

"It's a similar situation. You have people who have expressed interest in what they're doing. I think you're limiting the talents of your people by putting in a committee of the whole," Isabel said.

"That's why we're talking about it," Quackenbush said. "But, if we keep the committee structure the way it is, we have to understand where the lines are drawn [for our roles]."

District 1 Legislator Martin Kelly said he sees both sides and wants to see the committee structure stay the way it is. But, he agrees with Quackenbush about making the Finance Committee a committee of the whole.

"We should meet as a whole because our major purpose is to control the purse strings," Kelly said.

Quackenbush said the legislature can continue the structure as it is, and give the thought more consideration as business is conducted throughout the year.

"We're all going to be here three years. There is nothing that says we can't revisit this again in a year," Quackenbush said.

Quackenbush said it's also a subject that can be considered by the Education & Government Committee during its meeting scheduled Tuesday. A discussion about the rules of procedure, charter amendments, and the administrative code is on the agenda.

     

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